Mara G. Haseltine: Environmentally conscious art driven by form and function

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SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Has art and science always been joined together in your work?

MARA G. HASELTINE: My main inspiration has always come from the natural world, in particular the marine world and the microscopic realm. Though I enjoy art by other artists, they are not my reference point. I grew up in a milieu that appreciated both art and science, so the notion of melding art and science never seemed foreign to me. Some of my first experiences making art was influenced by playing in my father’s lab, when he was a biochemist at Harvard. Test tubes, glass pipettes melted on Bunsen burners, dry ice, multi-colored test tube tape, magic markers, and white boards became my art supplies. My Mother is a novelist, who grew up in post-war Tokyo and taught me about Japanese art, culture and aesthetics. In addition, I grew up with my nose buried in “Art Forms in Nature “ by the 19th century German scientist Ernst Haeckel, a contemporary of Darwin, who meticulously and beautifully illustrated the microscopic world and was the first to categorize life forms. We still categorize life forms based on his findings. Haeckel managed to combine accuracy and whimsy in his use of style and color when depicting the microscopic world, which is something I strive to do in my own work.

It was not until I began working on “The Cell” garden in 1999, a sculpture garden that depicted a cross section of eukaryotic or animal cell, that I began identifying myself with the “Sci-Art” movement, which then was in its nascent stages. With the Cell Garden my artwork became directly influenced by scientific discovery. Working with scientists on the Human Genome Project, I developed a technique for taking raw scientific data from the burgeoning field of bioinformatics and creating digitally fabricated sculptures. Specifically, developed a technique of using the raw biological data generated from SEM Scanning Electron Micrographs and translating that information into three-dimensional forms with rapid prototyping and 5-axis milling. Like Haeckel, my work is both scientifically accurate but also stylized through my treatment of the lines and shape, color and positioning, so the work tells a scientific story, which in turn creates a narrative for the viewer.

“The Cell Garden” is yet to be completed but came out of it was my largest sculpture to date “Waltz of the Polypeptides” which is an 84-foot-long depiction of a ribosomes in the act of creating a protein. It now graces the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Campus in Long Island.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Can you explain the affinities you’ve discovered between art and science?

MARA G. HASELTINE: Making art and carrying out a science experiment are similar. Both create a pallet or narrative in the anticipation that it will be understood by the viewer in an art context. Also, experimenting with new materials in the studio or field is a lot like doing an experiment in the lab.

Something that came as a bit of a surprise to me I realized as I began my own “barefoot science” citizen science experiments is that you think of science as pure fact but in truth it is often highly “curated”. Through the data set, scientists have a portal from the lab or field into into the world of the general public. How a data set is conveyed can greatly affect popular perception. I would argue “scientific truth” at times can be highly subjective, like art, depending on the way it is portrayed to the general public.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Much of your recent work deals with the microscopic. What attracted you to engaging Nature at that level?

MARA G. HASELTINE: On a purely formal level I have always been drawn to the microscopic world. I am also fascinated by the way that form follows function and function follows form even in the most minute protein that can only be detected through the light waves, which-bounce off moving energy in Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM). The forms that I see through the microscope are wildly fantastic and yet familiar. They are so tiny. They actually defy gravity and are unaffected by it. I am also captivated by the way we as a species and, in fact, the entire atmosphere around the planet is regulated by this unseen world that operates on such an invisible and minute level.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: How does the microscopic world and the macroscopic world humans live in interact in your work? For example, in your Futurenatural series? Supernatural series?

MARA G. HASELTINE: The Future-natural and Supernatural was a departure from the purely science-based work series. This work was inspired by the Shinto notion that the entire planet is alive, and that rocks and parts of nature have spirits called “kami”. I had the opportunity to travel to the island of Miyako-Jima in Okinawa and meet with the female shamans for a show I participated in called “Earth Consciousness” curated by Mariko Mori and the Faou Foundation in 2011 and 2012. As part of the show I proposed to build an amphibious sculpture and living reef, ‘Enchanted Star Sand”. The Shinto notion that the earth is alive is very similar to the atmospheric scientist James Lovelock’s “GAIA Hypothesis” in which he says that our entire biosphere is one living organism or body that the healthy self regulates. I have come to accept this theory and think of the planet and the biosphere as a living organism or cell that self regulates and is a sum of its parts. It is for this reason that I subscribe to the concept of “Geotherapy” in which a global bioethic is established in which humans act as stewards to the care of the planet and actively participate in “healing” the planet. This concept acknowledges that due to explosive population growth and human “ingenuity” which has the tendency to drastically alter the environment, the planet is undergoing its 6th mass extinction event.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: You also embrace the abstract elements in your figurative renderings of polypeptide folding. Can you discuss this?

MARA G. HASELTINE: The peptide folding that you mention in “Waltz of the Polypeptides” is actually the most figuratively accurate part of that sculpture. It is based on actual sub-molecular data that was collected using electron microscopes that picked up the vibrational currency or movement of the proteins to create the “ribbon diagram” depiction of peptide folding. What is abstract is the colors. Proteins have no assigned color. I also shaped the edges of the sculptures to have a certain curve. But the basic design for the peptides and proteins is accurate. I did take some liberty with the ribosomes in the sculpture, so they are recognizable but look like anthropomorphic dancers. With a more recent piece for University of Pennsylvania at the Basser Cancer Research “Homologous Hope” which studies cures for breast cancer utilized accurate sub-molecular data as the armature for this work. But even though the scientists can use it as a tool to explain how homologous recombination occurs and it is accurate, I also wanted it to be uplifting as the patients and their loved ones who frequented this lobby often felt compromised. And it was inspired by the sort of mythological creatures’ children see daydreaming and looking up at the a …. such as a Unicorn-Pegasus hybrid in this case.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Eco-science also informs much of your work. A lot of it takes the video form, though not all. How do you approach this aspect of your work?

MARA G. HASELTINE: I think that artists reflect the times that they live in and unfortunately, right now we are living at the beginning of the 6th Mass extinction. It is the most important thing that is going on globally right now. I love the medium of video for getting messages out because unlike a sculpture which is often one of a kind and stationary, a video is easy to send electronically and can be enjoyed by a wider global audience. The film “La Boehme: A Portrait of Our Ocean’s In Peril” has already been viewed globally…but I really think it still pales in comparison to the live performance in all its surrealistic grandeur, especially when Rodolpho serenades Mimi, who was ensnared by an Outsized “Tintinnid Plankton” in micro degraded plastic.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Can you discuss your solar powered oyster reef in Queens, New York, called “Transcriptease”?

MARA G. HASELTINE: “Transcriptease” was a work made right after I began working with the Global Coral Reef Alliance “GRCA” when I studied with them in Indonesia in 2006. I am fascinated by oysters’ ability to filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, build reef habitat and create a living beach break for shoreline protection. Inspired by the fact that New York’s harbor had once supported 500 square miles of oyster reef before the Industrial revolution. It filtered all the water that came in and out of the harbor in a matter of 72 hours. Inspired by this, I began researching and experimenting with sustainable reef substrate materials and focused on a process called Biorock, which I studied with architect Wolf Hilbritz who invented it with his marine biologist and atmospheric scientist partner Dr. Thomas Goreau in Indonesia.

Our sculpture, which was built using Biorock, is both a living science experiment and sculpture located in a public park in College Point, Queens. On this project I used Biorock in which light volts of electricity are run through metal, creating a DC current that accretes calcium carbonate using solar panels as an energy source. This calcium carbonate can grow three times the strength of concrete and is self-repairing and is therefore great for seawalls. Calcium carbonate is the main component in shells and coral skeletons, so larvae love to settle on it. In fact, the light electrical current seems to bolster the immune systems of the marine life growing on the structures and around it. We saw juvenile oysters settle on the rocks near the structures as well…
It was and still is an exciting project.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Speaking more generally, what does art offer science and vice versa?

MARA G. HASELTINE: Scientists have always created illustrations of their work but to create art with science is different from just medical or scientific illustration. This is largely a matter of context. For example, when medical illustrations are in text books or on the walls of doctor’s offices they are viewed as illustrative. When these same images are placed into a gallery or museum context they can be imbued with a different meaning or even multiple interpretations from both a formal and contextual point of view. Art and Science offer a window for the layman from whatever background to learn about science and be inspired by it. Art can be a great connector which brings science out of the Ivory Tower where it has been sequestered for centuries.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: What is next for you?

MARA G. HASELTINE: I am working on a global prototype for a project called “The Rococo Cocco Reef” which combines several different methods of innovative reef restoration. The design for “The Rococo Cocco Reef” offers an alternative to traditional concrete, which not only degrades over time but also through its manufacturing process is the second largest contributor to holes in the ozone layer worldwide. This restoration does not use plastic, epoxy or Portland cement. The idea is to create an example for safe restoration practices worldwide. It is my goal to influence or change global regulation of what is safe to put in the water.

It is going to have a massive citizen science component which I am really excited about. I love breaking visible barriers with my work. This project really combines environmental activism, citizen science and art that can be scaled up internationally.

The Rococo Cocco Reef is multi-dimensional, a living artwork, educational tool, Eco touristic dive site, habitat for fish and coral to thrive, a reef break and carbon sink that attenuates waves protecting shorelines endangered by rising sea levels due to climate change. The Rococo Cocco Reef will be created utilizing substrates composed of minerals found in coral reefs that coral larvae are naturally attracted to using primarily different forms of calcium carbonate, therefore making it the perfect marriage between design and function.

The Rococo Cocco Reef depicts outsized renditions of microscopic coccolithophore skeletons after they died and have sunk to the bottom of the ocean and the delicate coccolith discs which comprise them have begun disassembling. Coccolithophore plankton skeletons play a major role in sequestering greenhouse emissions like carbon dioxide. This is because even though they are microscopic single-celled plankton massive coccolithophore blooms occur globally. These blooms are so large they can be seen from outer space.

The Rococo Cocco Reef will be created utilizing substrates composed using primarily different forms of calcium carbonate. This is a real breakthrough sculpture for me because I will not only be depicting a microscopic structure but actually mimicking its functionality in regulating the atmosphere on a grand scale through of my choice of materials, thus a perfect marriage between design and function. In addition, The Rococo Cocco Reef is going to have a massive citizen science component and be scaled up globally which I am really excited about.

To see more of this artists work —


IMAGE SOURCE: Mara G. Haseltine

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